I feel like a Roman emperor. Soaking in a bubbling barrel bath of Cabernet Sauvignon, I sip sparkling wine under the stars. It is nightfall at the Patios de Cafayate wine spa, and the start of my tango from tropical to glacial Argentina.
Wines flourish in the high altitude of the Andes. In Salta, the signature grape is Torrontés. “All women love Torrontés,” says Lucia Romero of Bodegas El Porvenir. “They love the fruit, the flower, the perfume.” Not just women—its tropical bouquet is not lost on me either. The centre of Argentine wine production, however, is in Mendoza, where Malbec reigns supreme. Strolling through the pergola vineyards at Rutini Wines is like going back in time to its 1885 founding. Their wine museum of relics is, in itself, worth the visit, as we trace the evolution of winemaking through the ages. The Rutini Malbec has velvety aplomb and complexity, with deep dark fruit and a smooth lingering finish.
My visit to Mendoza would be incomplete without a day at Zuccardi, a family-run business with Old World charm and New World energy. Wine-related activities for us to choose include harvest tastings, biking through the vineyards, and even hot air balloons with sparkling wine. We opt for an Argentine cooking class in the kitchen and learn how to prepare the ubiquitous clay oven- baked Argentine snack pocket, the empanada. Lunch at Zuccardi offers a range of options like wine-pairing menus; a Tealosophy menu of inspired infusions and blended teas; and an olive oil tasting menu, including bull carpaccio with Parmesan cheese petals, beetroot, quince syrup and charcoal oil from the vineyards. We begin with a lovely amuse bouche of sweet and tart elements: cherry tomatoes papillote in rose-water perfume herbed with tarragon (presented with a scoop of kumquat sorbet overtop) and paired with Santa Julia sparkling wine. Why wait for dessert to taste something sweet when our taste buds can be set alight right from the start?
If Charles Darwin surveyed Argentina today, he would need a decanter. As the wine flows, Patagonia is a land of infinite horizons, where developing vineyards have required a pioneer’s imagination to create a wine industry where none existed. During construction of Bodega Familia Schroeder, workers unearthed some of the largest dinosaur bones ever discovered. Now, as we dine on fresh local trout at the winery’s restaurant, the Titanosaurus (titanic lizard), along with its giant petrified eggs, are encased in glass directly underneath our table. In homage, Schroeder named its brand “Saurus.” My instant favourite is the sparkling Torrontés, called Deseado. It bursts forth with fresh white peach, orange blossom and notes of muscat on the nose that follows through to the palate.
Arriving in southern Patagonia, one cannot help but feel “an inconvenient truth” on viewing the arid landscape and yet, at the time of this writing, the Perito Moreno Glacier has not retreated. This magnificent river of snow and ice, carving slopes and unfurling between mountains looks like a Baked Alaska atop a glowing Tiffany box. It’s so bright that it’s almost blinding. I pack a water bottle for the trek, but it’s like bringing a pail of sand to the beach. An empty container is all I need as I reach into a pristine turquoise crevice to scoop up the purest water in the world. En route to El Calaphate, we stop to ride horses along serene trails through mountains and across streams in the crisp clean air. The entrée of choice is Patagonian lamb. They don’t skimp on the portions in Argentina, and after 1.5 kilos per serving, I need to take another hike.
Argentina has more cattle than people, but the average Argentine eats 68 kilos (150 lb.) of beef per year—the highest per capita consumption of beef in the world. Grass-fed Argentine beef is arguably the juiciest, most robust beef in the world. No marinade or sauce is required—just a pinch of sea salt and a slow-cooking wood-fired grill. The ritual of the asado, grilling over an open fire, begins with a Malbec. The beef is generally cooked to medium-well, so I ask for it “red.” Asado aside, at the Palacio Duhau Park Hyatt Buenos Aires, we are treated to the most mouthwatering, taste bud-igniting beef for which Argentina is renowned. Here, the ambience encourages us to “think in wine and cheese.” As the sommelier chooses seven of 60 wines by the glass, his cheese master matches from 52 Argentine artisanal cheeses—proof enough that it takes two to tango. With sommelier and chef collaborating harmoniously, “we don’t only match with the wine,” I am told, “we also match with the situation.”
To the north, bordering Brazil, we arrive at the spectacular Iguazú Falls. Upon viewing the massive 275 cascades spread along the Iguazú River, Eleanor Roosevelt is said to have exclaimed, “Poor Niagara!” Short open-air rides facilitate us from one vista to the next, while narrow footbridges connect paths between falls. Toucans, with their tie-dyed-looking beaks, sit atop branches, while all sorts of critters along the path make us jump. On a boat beneath the “Devil’s Throat,” I defiantly wager I can stay dry, but soon enough I’m sopping wet, tumbling through nature’s most exhilarating spin cycle.
“Shall we drink a maté?” our host at Las Marias tea plantation asks. He prepares yerba maté in a cup made of a dried calabash gourd, and offers the first sip to me through a bombilla, a metal straw with a sieve at its tip. Once the water is emptied, the gourd is refilled. “You don’t just give your friend a cup,” he explains. “You give your friend your own cup and straw.” Intensely vegetal with notes of cigar box, maté is highly nutritional, and was once thought of as “the drink of the Gods.” Now it is a social custom.
Tango means “touch” in Latin. We share maté, toast each other with wine, and appreciate camaraderie over an asado, because like so many pleasures in Argentina, the enjoyment is in sharing the experience.
Adam Waxman is an award winning travel journalist focusing on food, wine and well being. As well as an actor in film, television and formerly, the Stratford Festival, he is the Publisher of DINE and Destinations magazine.